Nostalgia: St Mary’s – centre of town life

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Many years ago, when I was teacher representative on the governing body of the Sixth Form College, on occasions I sat next to the vicar of St Mary’s, the Rev J Keys Fraser. We both had degrees in history and a common interest in the town’s eventful and important past. My particular subject of study then was Scarborough’s involvement in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

I knew that St Mary’s original parish registers of baptisms, weddings and burials for this time had disappeared and that it was generally assumed that they were casualties of the Roundhead occupation of the church during the two castle sieges of 1645 and 1648. But surely the churchwardens must have kept other records? Were they also victims of Roundhead vandalism? The vicar’s sympathies were clearly with the Royalists and he was confident that nothing of documentary value had survived.

Time passed. Keys Fraser retired. Then, in 1991, much to my delight, a colleague and good friend, Frank Sutcliffe, discovered a ledger in one of St Mary’s vestry cupboards and showed it to me. The ledger had been bought from T Taylor & Son, 37 Newborough, in March 1909. On 76 of its blank pages were pasted sheets of manuscript all written in the style of the seventeenth century. The earliest document was dated 1607 and the latest, 1698. There were many chronological gaps during those years and the records were written in a variety of hands, but they were all the work of a succession of St Mary’s churchwardens.

Some of the scripts were receipts of rent from tenants of church lands and dues paid for baptism, communion, marriages and burials; some were payments of money for church fabric repairs and officers’ expenses, such as bell-ringers’ fees; some were lists of parishioners with their rates of payment of tithes, the poor charge and for church window repairs; and one set was a lengthy list of the occupants of the new pews built and paid for in 1635.

As legally required, the ledger was sent to and welcomed by the East Riding County Record Office at Beverley and referenced there as PE 165/241.

Richard Gough, a Shropshire antiquarian, born in 1635, drew a seating plan of Myddle church, in the north of the county, as it was in 1701, noting the occupants of its 50 pews. Gough’s The History of Myddle has been long considered by historians to be a unique and remarkable source of evidence for seventeenth-century rural society, partly because of his comprehensive seating plan, but mainly because of his personal and pithy descriptions of Myddle’s parishioners.

For instance, David Higley, he wrote, was “a good husband by fitts. What he got with hard labor hee spent idely in the Alehouse”. Of a certain gentlewoman, “who if shee wanted beauty had a large share of tongue” and of another: “Hee was very dull at learning but...hee had geare in his britches, for hee got one of his uncle’s servant’s maids with child.”

Unfortunately, Scarborough had no contemporary chronicler like Richard Gough to put down such frank and colourful details. Also, whereas Myddle’s whole community numbered only about 50 families, of Scarborough’s 450 families only about 250 were wealthy enough to buy privileged places in their parish church. Nevertheless, the discovery of St Mary’s churchwardens’ accounts and particularly their seating plan of 1635 provides us with an authentic picture of that time never previously thought possible.

Only two years previously, St Mary’s had received an unsatisfactory report from the archbishop of York’s inspectors: it was, they wrote, “in decay, in the timber, lead, glasses, roof and workmanship”. The lay rector, Stephen Thompson, came under fire “for suffring the chancle to be in decay in the roof thereof and glass, some of the windows being walled up”. In return for receipt of church tithes, it was the responsibility of the rector to maintain the chancel in good order.

In fact, the chancel of St Mary’s, the newest part of the church building, added by the Augustinian Black Canons of Bridlington Priory in the 1470s, was already empty of stalls. Once it had been the monks’ choir, but after the priory was dissolved in 1537, it was occupied only by the eastern altar, the vicar’s pulpit and the graves of prominent families such as the Peacocks and Fyshs.

However, the election of Richard Neile to the archdiocese of York in 1632 marked a decisive moment in the history of the northern Anglican church. Neile was the choice of William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, and King Charles, supreme governor of the established church. All three were determined to stamp out the Puritan clergy, who had little regard for church fabric and furnishing and allowed them to go to wrack and ruin.

Another major influence on St Mary’s reformation was Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby of Hackness. His religious views were sternly puritanical, but his addiction to lengthy sermons meant that he was more than willing to see Scarborough’s parishioners suitably seated rather than having to stand. And if all those who attended future Sunday services could be identified in their allotted pews, it would be much easier in future for the churchwardens to note absentees. With room for only 250 of the town’s 450 families, the whole community could not be accommodated, but what mattered was that all the affluent and influential would be in their places.

Accordingly, the Common Hall swung into action. Money was raised from leases of town land and a loan from the coroners’ pier money, a contract was made with the joiners and carpenters, and they were to make new pews, modelled on those at St Mary’s Beverley, to fill the whole nave, side aisles and former chantry chapels. In effect the chancel was abandoned and the vicar’s pulpit was built on the south side of the “great allee”. [central nave]

Even in church the hierarchical principle was observed. There were reserved pews for the rector, Mr Bailiffs, Mr Coroners, and one each for the four middlemost, four ancient and four youngest aldermen. All the best seats, valued at £2 13s 4d each, were clustered around Mr Simpson, the vicar. Here were the Thompson clan, Richard, Francis and Timothy, the senior bailiff, John Harrison, the Fyshs, Gregory and Robert, and the other oligarchs with family names such as Conyers, Headley and Foord. All First Twelve men were dignified with the title of Mister.

[to be continued]